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This Week in History
December 16-22, 1714:
Celebrating the Birthday of a Great Scientist —
And Grandfather of the American Revolution

December 2012

John Winthrop.

No, it's not Benjamin Franklin, although our birthday celebrant collaborated with the somewhat older Franklin on both scientific and political matters. Born on Dec. 19, 1714 in Boston, John Winthrop was a member of the fourth generation of the Winthrop family in America, and was the great-grandson of the original John Winthrop who planned and led the settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony. This later Winthrop became the leading scientist in America, and was renowned in Europe as an astronomer, mathematician, physicist, meteorologist, geologist, and the world's first seismologist.

Both Franklin and Professor Winthrop, as he came to be known, were protégés of Cotton Mather, whose many scientific works included a study of comets. Like Mather, both Franklin and Winthrop fought superstition and irrational fears about science by educating the American population in Classical scientific method, and by publicly demonstrating the wonderful results of scientific breakthroughs. As they created an informed citizenry, Franklin and Winthrop also inspired much of the future leadership of the American Revolution. In Winthrop's case, his students included Samuel Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock.

John Winthrop was an excellent student at Boston Latin School, and entered Harvard College in 1728. When he graduated in 1732, he had already developed a strong interest in mathematics and astronomy. Happily, a London merchant-banker named Thomas Hollis, to whom Cotton Mather had dedicated his Christian Philosopher, endowed a Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard. When the first occupant of this position proved incompetent, John Winthrop, at the age of only 24, was appointed to the position. Ben Franklin reported on Winthrop's installation ceremonies in his Pennsylvania Gazette of February 1, 1739.

The new professor made observations on sunspots, the transit of Mercury in 1740, lunar eclipses, meteors, and comets. He also began a 20-year series of meteorological observations. One of his most important international collaborations was during the two transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769. Two European observatories—Greenwich and Paris—sent out five different observing parties to America. Harvard and the Province of Massachusetts participated by granting the use of the Province's sloop to carry Professor Winthrop and two assistants and instruments to St. John's, Newfoundland.

Winthrop's lectures on the transit of Venus demonstrate the lucid literary style and infectious good humor which was so admired by his students: "A transit of Venus over the Sun is the most uncommon and most important phenomenon that the whole compass of astronomy affords us. So uncommon is it, that it can never happen above twice in any century; in others but once; and in some centuries it cannot happen at all. And the importance of it is such as to supply us with a certain and complete solution of a very curious problem, which is inaccessible in any other way. On both accounts it well deserves a very particular attention.

"So extremely rare are these phenomena, and in fact till that which was observed in 1761, there never had been but one seen since the Creation. This was in December of the year 1639, and it was seen by two persons only: Jeremiah Horrock, a young English astronomer of an admirable genius, who was the only person that predicted it, and a friend of his, William Crabtree. And when this of next June is passed, the present race of mortals may take their leave of these transits, for there is not the least probability that anyone who sees this will see another.

"On account of their rarity alone they must afford an exquisite entertainment to an astronomical taste. But this is not all. There is another circumstance which strongly recommends them. They furnish the only adequate means of solving a most difficult problem—that of determining the true distance of the Sun from the Earth. This has always been a principal object of astronomical inquiry. Without this we can never ascertain the true dimensions of the solar system and the several orbits of which it is composed, nor assign the magnitudes and densities of the Sun, the planets, and comets; nor of consequence attain a just idea of the grandeur of the works of God....

"It will not be easy to give a distinct account of the several steps in the method of applying these phenomena to this purpose without the use of diagrams, which are not suitable to this place. I shall, notwithstanding, endeavor to convey to you as clear an idea as I can of the general methods, and in order to do it I shall trace things from their first principles."

The fact that Winthrop spoke of the solar system and the several orbits of which it is composed, rather than saying the system was composed of planets, marked him as a follower of Johannes Kepler and Gottfried Leibniz. The pitched battle which was being fought out in Europe over scientific outlook and method was also reflected in America. The old Aristotelian empirical outlook of the feudal system, which refused to recognize anything but sense-certainty, was pitted against the Platonic republican method of discovering principles which could be encompassed by the mind, but were not necessarily directly apprehended by the senses.

This republican idea of man's creativity was at the heart of the coming American Revolution, just as it was the bedrock of Winthrop's and Franklin's scientific research. For that reason, Great Britain monitored both political activity and scientific research closely, and the two allies, Winthrop and Franklin, often had to be guarded about what they revealed about their collaboration. This was true about the origins of Franklin's discoveries in the electrical nature of lightning.

On May 10, 1746, John Winthrop, who had established the first American physics laboratory, demonstrated at Harvard the first controlled American experiments in electrical phenomena. Franklin was there that year and began his own work on electricity shortly after returning to Philadelphia, and later obtained an electric battery for Winthrop from London. Yet he cautiously writes in his Autobiography that his new interest in electricity derived from an "imperfect" experiment by a touring Scottish scientist that he saw in Boston.

The collaboration with Winthrop also surfaced in 1755, when a major earthquake caused frightened people to claim that the catastrophe stemmed from the growing use of Franklin's invention, the lightning rod. Winthrop publicly attacked the rumors, and disseminated his own research on earthquakes, which suggested that the disturbances of the Earth's crust were in the form of waves, and transmitted a pendulum-like motion to buildings and objects on the surface. He posited an analogy between seismic motion and musical vibrations, and discovered the principle that the quicker the motion, the shorter the wave length of the disturbance.

Although Professor Winthrop's political role as one of the leaders of America's republican networks was not as public, he was consulted by George Washington during the French and Indian War, as well as during the Revolution. General Washington appointed him to oversee the munitions for the Continental Army's siege of British-occupied Boston, and he was appointed to a similar post by the new government of Massachusetts. Winthrop proved that he was in the thick of the fight when his old student John Adams agonized over the question of whether the Continental Congress should declare independence from Britain. Winthrop warned him in a letter of April 1776 that unless the decision were made "pretty soon," Massachusetts would "do it for themselves."

John Winthrop died of pneumonia in 1779, but he had trained several crucial generations to carry on his work.


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.